Field notes by Jeff Cantrell, photos courtesy of the Missouri Dept. of Conservation

I’ve known many wildlife photographers and naturalists who refer to the time before sunset as the golden hour. This sector of time may vary easily from 30 minutes to a 90-minute period. 

I, myself, have often extended my arm toward the setting sun. I judge the golden-hour timeframe with the space of one or two spaces of my fist between the setting sun and the distant horizon. Perhaps you must be in the setting and experience its magic, but to me, it’s truly magical and difficult to convey the beauty of sight and sounds. It is common for the wind to lessen at this time of day, and the light is shining almost horizontally on the landscape and its plant life. 

The sounds of autumn’s golden hour are not as harsh with blasting and buzzing as we may have witnessed in July, August or September. At the time, those summer cicadas, tree crickets, red-winged blackbirds, etc., were the players in the habitat’s summer soundtrack. Now, in October, we can often single out individual sounds of true bugs, grasshoppers and birds near and far. At the edge or midst of an Ozark savanna, prairie or wetland, I can relive a text from Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the conservation philosophy. 

Aldo penned, “Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a far-away dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ear at that sound, wondering. Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming-on. The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing.  When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding Taps for summer.”

October is celebrated for it striking autumn tree color, and for good reason. The color intensity of native maples, hickories, black gum, persimmons and sassafras is inspiring. The colors change throughout the forest and wetlands this month not only week by week, but also during the day as the sunlight “plays” on the canopies and wetland forbs.  

The color scene should not be overlooked at our feet or eye-level either. Fragrant sumac shrubs hold many benefits for landscaping purposes in someone’s yard, including erosion control, perks for butterflies and songbirds, and gorgeous fall beauty. We may know of shining blue star’s dazzling flowers at the edge of wetlands or blooming in our flowerbeds during late spring; however, long after the blooms fade, the foliage is a masterpiece itself.  

Fall certainly recalls the color of changing leaves, but we still have new color coming on with fall bloomers. Many native fall-blooming plants will keep displaying flora arrangement past frosts and freezes. New England asters are recommended for the back of a flowerbed because of the height they may reach in good soil. We know this aster from some of the wet, wild areas we naturalists love! Aromatic asters appear like rounded, small shrubs in sunny locations. They have a continuing blooming cycle past a hard frost and are truly a magnet for several species of skippers and well-known welcomed butterflies. A planted aromatic aster brings much delight to a schoolyard or one’s own backyard, helping the golden hour shine on something easily at hand.

Autumn days pass too quickly. I hope all lovers of the outdoors are able to carve out some quiet time and enjoy these riches. I hope to catch you on a fall trail or maybe enjoying the waterfowl at Four Rivers or the blooming willow asters at Prairie State Park this coming month.  – Jeff

Jeff Cantrell is an outdoor educator and naturalist. Email: [email protected].